Ramblin’ Readers

Baton Rouge book club takes its studies on the road

Members of the Ramblin’ Readers book club do more than just read books. They combine their study of books with their interests in food and art and their love of travel.

These retired, or almost retired, educators devote every six months to books of a designated theme or place, reading one such book a month. At the end of the six months, members take a trip together to experience the culture described in the books they have studied.

In the five years since the club was founded, members have visited a number of destinations including Chicago; Asheville, N.C.; New Orleans; Fairhope, Ala.; San Antonio; Natchez, Miss.; Santa Fe., N.M.; and Savannah, Ga.

“We try to find a location interesting to all of us,” said Annette Mire, associate superintendent of schools in West Baton Rouge Parish. The club alternates between a location members can get to by car and a more distant destination that requires air travel.

“One near and one far,” said retired principal Sondra Pilgreen.

“When we started the club, we wanted something stimulating. We wanted learning and travel,” Mire said. She’s one of the few members of the club who is still working.

“We said we wanted to make connections with other people in our stage in life,” Pilgreen said.

Retired principal Linda Green, Mire and Pilgreen started the club in 2007. “It’s so much more than a book club,” Green said. “We are friends.”

The membership of no more than 12 meets once a month in a member’s home. Another member serves as facilitator to lead the book discussion and introduce the group to the life and work of the author whose book is being studied. The facilitator develops thought-provoking questions and moderates a discussion.

The club chooses its destinations about a year and a half in advance. Members are designated as travel agents or coordinators to make all arrangements for the trips. As soon as the designated coordinators are selected, they get to work researching the location. The books are selected around the destinations.

“We try to do books that have to do with history or art. We sometimes choose cookbooks,” Mire said. The books include both fiction and nonfiction.

Members never shy away from social issues. “We have had some of the most thought-provoking discussions that have come out of a book,” Mire said.

Whenever possible, the group stays in bed and breakfasts, inns or significant hotels such as the Drake in Chicago, the Grove Park Inn in Asheville and a Spanish hacienda in Santa Fe. When possible, the group arranges its tours around local events and celebrations. Club members have attended the Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville, the Art Walk and Christmas celebration in Fairhope, the Garden District Preservation Tour in New Orleans, the Gingerbread House Contest in Asheville, Spring Fiesta in San Antonio and the Festival of Lights in Natchitoches.

The club visited Natchez during the Christmas season and had a special dinner in the dining room of Monmouth Plantation with drinks with best-selling author Greg Iles.

One of the club’s favorite entertainments is having dinner in restaurants mentioned in books they have read. They had dinner in New Orleans in the 1840 Room at Antoine’s, featured in “Dinner at Antoine’s,” and in Savannah at Elizabeth on 37th and Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Often the group will meet with an author. Michael Harvey, author of “The Chicago Way,” owns an Irish bar in Chicago and asked the members to meet him there. “He brought us a bag of hardback books,” Pilgreen said.

“He treated us to drinks,” said Becky Patterson, a retired teacher.

Suzanne Hudson, author of “In a Temple of Trees,” and Joe Formichella, author of “The Unfortunate Incident,” invited them to their home in Fairhope. “We sat on their deck and talked about writing,” Mire said. “He likes to get up at 4 and write. She starts with an outline and fills in the story.”

Author Sara Roahen met them at Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans and led a discussion about New Orleans food. They were joined by famous chef Leah Chase for part of the discussion. Food writer Marcelle Bienvenu met the members at Clementine in New Iberia and discussed Louisiana regional food and customs related to food. “She told us all about the different gumbos,”Green said.

“One of the things we do when we meet the authors is to ask them about their different styles and the different ways they work,” Pilgreen said.

Club members feel that it is very important to support local independent, family-owned bookstores. “These stores are also wonderful resources for local books and authors,” Mire said. “We often contact or visit these stores and ask for suggestions for books that are relevant to that locale.”

The club’s guidelines specify that members make every effort to be a part of each trip and to attend monthly meetings. Members make a commitment to make one trip a year.

There is also a monetary commitment. Each member can count on spending at least $3,000 a year including books, travel, hotels and the expense of hosting a meeting.